We’ve gone pill-mad, and they’re doing more harm than good


We’ve gone pill-mad, and they’re doing more harm than good

The over-medication epidemic is making tens of thousands sick, and it’s a medical catastrophe

James le Fanu

Those in their 70s and beyond are by far the major beneficiaries of modern medicines that vanquish (or mitigate) the physical trials and tribulations of later life – arthritic joints, impaired mobility, heart failure and much else besides. Many troubled by more than one such ailment will need to take a combination of medicines, so called “polypharmacy” (literally “many drugs”). But caution is necessary.

The late professor DR Laurence in his classic textbook Clinical Pharmacology – required reading by medical students for many years – summarises the eight separate reasons for the increased tendency for drugs to cause harm in later life, concluding unassailably: “Drug therapy in the elderly should be kept to a minimum.”

In recent years, this cardinal principle of sensible prescribing has been reversed with serious consequences reiterated yet again in a report late last week from Age UK, “More Harm Than Good”. The relevant statistics could reasonably be described as awesome. In just 15 years, the number of prescriptions issued by family doctors in Britain has increased threefold – an additional 600 million each year. Four times as many take at least five drugs, three times as many take 10 or more. And the consequences? The most readily quantifiable evidence of “more harm than good” cited by the report has been the huge upswing in the numbers requiring hospital admission for a medical emergency caused by the drugs they are taking: from 60,000 10 years ago to 90,000 in 2015...

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